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EverQuote and patent medicine

In a thread begun October 2016, Washington Post technology director Aram Zucker-Scharff tweeted about the shady advertising practices of EverQuote, a Boston-based startup.

Since then these ads have become prolific on the web (and nearly as prolific are Aram’s tweets documenting the malfeasance). Despite MatterMark writing about the shady practices here and the deception featured in its Wikipedia article, the company is still allowed to access inventory through Google’s ad exchanges, providing access to many of the web’s news publications and other seemingly credible content websites.

The ad at the top this article links to a URL

The location Philadelphia had been determined from the lat/long coordinates included in the URL, and the site will cookie the user so that the same location appears throughout the site. See here how the location has changed:

As Aram has noted on Twitter, the people featured in the picture also change, as does the headline, depending on testing or personalization. But they are definitely not the founders, who boasted to the Boston Globe in this 2015 feature that they don’t look like “typical” startup people, yet callously went on to exploit this stereotype for their own lead generation. 

Does EverQuote meet the definition of fake news? Craig Silverman, the term progenitor, describes fake news as outlets publishing exclusively false stories engineered to go viral. While unsuccessful in going viral, the EverQuote content is engineered to appear like a locally published article. And it provides minimal if any editorial or user value.

Should there be laws regulating digital advertisements? It seems that Google won’t fix the problem of its own accord. Or they aren’t aware of the issue, despite the length of time it’s been a problem. Self-regulation of crypto ads hints at some fear of government oversight.

The historical precedent might be patent medicine and specifically patent medicine ads that proliferated in America up until 1905 when Collier’s Weekly published The Great American Fraud by Samuel Hopkins Adams. In a section titled Newspaper Accomplices:

If there is no limit to the gullibility of the public on the one hand, there is apparently none to the cupidity of the newspapers on the other. As the Proprietary Association of America is constantly setting forth in veiled warnings, the press takes an enormous profit from patent-medicine advertising. Mr. Hearst’s papers alone reap a harvest of more than half a million dollars per annum from this source. The Chicago Tribune, which treats nostrum advertising in a spirit of independence, and sometimes with scant courtesy, still receives more than $80,000 a year in medical patronage.

Samuel Hopkins Adams in The Great American Fraud

Adams’ work helped bring about the 1906 Pure Food And Drug Act, which may have made life a bit less fun at times (no more opium drops!) but certainly much safer for everyone. Yet, as the Chicago Tribune reported in a wonderful followup, it would still take some thirty years for patent medicines of questionable quality to be fully removed from the print pages.

As a small-time publisher there aren’t many ad network options that don’t tap into Google ad inventory. In all likelihood, even if you find another network willing to traffic a small site, they too are probably using AdExchange on the demand side. So wherever you turn, these guys.. or girls… or mixed group… will be there looking at you.

C’mon Google, can we do something about this? The alternative might not be as favorable to your bottomline; if public sentiment against tech companies continues shifting additional regulation could certainly happen based on the patent medicine historical precedent.

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